With humble origins, San Jose federation serves 21,000

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Finally, five years later in San Jose, the family was reunited.

Ilse Schwalbe, who had been a bookkeeper in Berlin for Youth Aliyah, worked as a legal secretary before accepting the position of executive secretary to the board of the Jewish Community Council — a new version of the San Jose Jewish Federation — in 1949. (The San Jose Jewish Federation had been a nonprofit corporation since June 1930.)

Working from her apartment, Schwalbe set up a system for recording pledges. She took minutes at board meetings and handled all of the council's correspondence reports and notices.

Today the federation serves more than 21,000 Jews in Santa Clara County. Based in Los Gatos since 1984, under the same roof as Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, the organization is now the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

Interviewing Ilse Schwalbe, who died three years ago, about the early days of the federation, assistant executive director Janet Berg wrote in the June 1980 Jewish Community News:

"She recalls vividly one very large fundraising dinner. `Jack Benny had come to be guest speaker before a sellout crowd at the St. Claire Hotel. Over 390 people attended the dinner at $3 per plate. But many of those in attendance had come to be entertained and not to be philanthropic by the standards that the famous comedian was used to. Mr. Benny was so disappointed, he vowed never to come back to San Jose. He kept that promise.'"

But another man who did not give up so easily was Max Gordon, Schwalbe's next-door neighbor in San Jose's Willow Glen area. He opened his home to refugees coming in from Shanghai.

The council counted 35 new families from Shanghai and the displaced persons camps in Europe, as resettling in San Jose between 1947 and 1955.

Refugees continued to move to the South Bay: From 1978 to 1980, the federation welcomed more than 200 Soviet Jews. They received help in resettling from the Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County.

One of the liveliest programs offered in the 1950s was the Senior Friendship Club, which met at Congregation Sinai, an independent traditional San Jose synagogue, and later at the Jewish Community Council building in downtown San Jose.

Ruth Jeffe, the federation's secretary-bookkeeper from 1939 to 1974, told Berg, "On Thursday afternoons we got very little work done: we heard all the stories and shared in the laughter."

The friendship club continued until recently. Berg said other social clubs have taken its place: Socialites for 65-plus couples, Etcetera for couples ages 45 to 65, Family of Friends for singles 65 plus, Sassy Singles for 50 to 65, Senior Tripper's Group, and many others. In addition, the kosher nutrition program feeds as many as 50 seniors per day.

In 1960, the council also sponsored Camp JCC, its first summer day camp. Fifty children participated in the four-week, Monday-to-Friday program at San Jose's Rose Garden, swimming at the adjacent Abraham Lincoln High School.

Today's JCC summer camp runs three sessions, serving 180 children. Camp director is Beki Safar.

In the early days, according to Berg, it was difficult to distinguish activities of the council from those of San Jose's only synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. Herman Berns was president of both.

In 1958, the council established its first facility in the Porter Building on East Santa Clara Street. The board of directors voted to hire its first executive director, Sidney Stein. He hired secretary-bookkeeper Ruth Jeffe.

Several moves later, in the 1970s, the organization changed its name. Today the federation conducts an annual campaign on behalf of more than 30 social welfare, community relations, educational and cultural institutions in the South Bay, the United States, Israel and around the world. The largest single recipient of the federation's campaign funds is the United Jewish Appeal.

"The main mission of the federation remains the same since the beginning,," said Berg, "which is to support and strengthen Jewish life in our community and overseas.

"We are still rescuing and rehabilitating emigres from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia where Jews are in distress.

"But we need to appeal to the next generation in sort of a hands-on manner that tzedakah and Jewish leadership is the place to be and the thing to do."